mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Global Storm Warning

How many killer hurricanes will it take before America gets serious
about global warming? It’s hard to imagine a more clear-cut wake-up
call than Hurricane Katrina; environmentally speaking, it was nearly
the perfect storm. In a single catastrophic event, it brought together
the most urgent environmental problem of our time—global
warming—with the most telling but least acknowledged environmental
truth: When the bill for our collective behavior comes due, it is
invariably the nonwhite, nonaffluent members of society who pay a
disproportionate share. And who said Mother Nature has no sense of
irony? Katrina (and then Rita) struck at a major production site for
America’s oil and natural gas—the two carbon-based fuels that, along
with coal, help drive global warming.

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What’s more, Katrina’s primary target already ranked as the most
environmentally ravaged state in the union. Louisiana is home to
“Cancer Alley,” a 100-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge
that contains the greatest concentration of petrochemical factories in
the United States. Pollution from those factories has punished nearby
communities—again, mainly poor and black—for decades, as Steve
Lerner documented in his recent book Diamond. This pollution has also
drained into the Mississippi River, where it joins fertilizer and
pesticide runoff from millions of acres of Midwestern farmland to flow
into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a massive “dead zone” off the
Louisiana coast—1,400 square miles of ocean floor as bereft of life
as an Arizona desert. The dead zone would be smaller except that
Louisiana, like America as a whole, has lost a third of its coastal
wetlands to economic development. Wetlands filter out impurities, much
as the liver does for the human body. They also perform a second vital
ecosystem function, acting as buffers that absorb and diminish the
giant waves that hurricanes generate before they strike inland.
Louisiana’s loss of wetlands helps explain why the floods Katrina
unleashed ended up overrunning 466 chemical factories, thirty-one
Superfund sites and 500 sewage treatment plants, according to the
Times-Picayune and the Houston Chronicle, leaving behind a toxic soup
whose long-term health effects are incalculable.

Despite these horrors some leading environmentalists see a potential
silver lining in Katrina: They believe it may finally awaken the
United States from its environmental complacency, especially about
global warming. “Sea-level rise and increased storm intensity are no
longer abstract, long-term issues but are associated with horrific
pictures seen on television every evening,” says Christopher Flavin,
president of the Worldwatch Institute.

Yes, the Bush Administration and its right-wing allies will continue
to deny that global warming exists and resist cutting carbon
emissions. But global warming foot-draggers have succeeded in the past
largely because the public was confused about whether the problem
really existed. That confusion was encouraged by the mainstream media,
which in the name of journalistic “balance” gave equal treatment to
global warming skeptics and proponents alike, even though the skeptics
represented a tiny fringe of scientific opinion and often were funded
by companies with a financial interest in discrediting global warming.
Katrina, however, may mark a turning point for the media as well as
the public.

“The reaction has been more positive than any time in the sixteen
years that I’ve been trying to make noise about global warming,” says
Bill McKibben, author of the 1989 classic The End of Nature. The day
after Katrina hit, McKibben wrote an article for TomDispatch.com
arguing that the devastation of New Orleans was, alas, only the first
of many global warming disasters destined to strike in the
twenty-first century. When McKibben appeared on radio shows to discuss
the article, he says, “Everyone, and I mean everyone, who called in
said, Thank heaven someone is saying this stuff, because it’s what I’m
thinking about all the time now.”

“Had I said this stuff two years ago, the reactions would have ranged
from skeptical to hostile, except for the liberal outlets,” says Ross
Gelbspan, whose Op-Ed article in the Boston Globe arguing that
Katrina’s “real name was global warming” led to forty-five media
appearances. Gelbspan, who exposed industry funding of global warming
skeptics in his book The Heat Is On, adds, “Even a couple of hostile,
initially antagonistic right-wing talk-show hosts were drawn into the
discussion—and their remarks turned from provocative to curious to
sympathetic.”

“There aren’t many reporters left who believe the skeptics,” says Phil
Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. Clapp credits
the joint statement issued by eleven of the world’s national academies
of science (including America’s), before last June’s meeting of the
G-8 nations, declaring that global warming was a grave danger
requiring immediate attention. “You may not have seen headlines
screaming that Katrina was caused by global warming,” Clapp adds, “but
every reporter I’ve talked to has come to the position in their own
mind that we have to prepare for global warming’s effects.”

But what journalists think in their own minds matters less than what
they put on the air and in the papers. And given the gravity of the
situation, screaming headlines are warranted. It’s true that global
warming can’t be definitively blamed for one particular weather event;
weather is the product of too many different factors to allow such
specificity. Seizing on this fact, skeptics now trumpet scientific
studies that portray Katrina as simply a manifestation of a natural
long-term pattern in which first strong then weak hurricanes
predominate. That pattern is real, but it doesn’t invalidate global
warming; the two trends can co-exist. The scientists at
RealClimate.org offer a useful analogy: Imagine a set of dice
loaded so that double sixes come up twice as often as normal. If the
dice are then rolled and double sixes do come up, the loading may or
may not be responsible for the result; after all, regular dice
sometimes yield double sixes, too. All that’s certain is that over
time the frequency of double sixes will increase. Likewise, Katrina
might have been an extra-powerful hurricane even if humanity had never
emitted a single greenhouse gas. But over time, humanity’s loading of
the climatic dice guarantees that there will be more killer hurricanes
like Katrina. We’d better get ready, and quickly.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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